James Ford Bell Library

Ginseng

by Masarah VanEyck


In 1715 P. Joseph François Lafitau (1681-1746) traveled to Quebec as a French missionary to live with and convert the Iroquois.1 Three years later he wrote the Regent of France a letter (really a small book) declaring that he had discovered ginseng in the forests of Canada. His book, Memoire Presenté à son Altesse Royal Monseigneur le Duc D’Orleans, traces Lafitau’s discovery and subsequent investigation of the plant.

      Lafitau had been introduced to ginseng during his trip to China in 1709. At the time he, like most Europeans, had assumed that ginseng was native to China only — and specifically to “Tartarie”, a northern region. He was surprised, therefore, to find the plant growing in the forests and mountains of Quebec. In his book, Lafitau speculates on how ginseng found its way across the globe and compares the two strains and their uses, to determine if they are, in fact, the same plant.

      Ginseng requires very specific conditions in order to live and grow. It can grow only in regions of dense vegetation, out of direct sunlight. Ginseng is often on mountains or on the banks of ravines, near rocks and at the foot of trees (Lafitau, p.62). Because of its requirement, Lafitau remarks that ginseng is rare to almost all regions and doubts if, even if transplanted, it would grow in France (p.65). With research, Lafitau discovers that the climates of Quebec and Tartarie are relatively similar. Tartarie (or Tartary/Tatary, as it is listed in Webster’s Geographical Dictionary) is defined only as “historically an indefinite region of Asia and Europe extending from the sea of Japan to the Dniepar river”. Lafitau is much more specific in his description, placing Tartarie between 39 and 47 degrees of latitude and between 10 and 20 degrees longitude (p.52). The region of Quebec at the time of Lafitau’s travels included what we now know as Wisconsin (and many other midwestern states, as well).

Lafitau’s Mémoire opposite page 18Lafitau’s Mémoire opposite page 18

      In order to prove to himself and, more importantly, to doctors and funders back home that the plant he found was, in fact ginseng, Lafitau describes various tests that he performed on the plant. His first introduction to the root was, with the aid of an Iroquois woman he hired. Apparently, this woman was suffering from a high and persistent fever. After grinding some of the root between two stones and ingesting it, her fever gradually decreased and disappeared (p.11). Lafitau discovered that the Iroquois used this root for many of the same purposes as did the Chinese — primarily for energy and an overall toner.

      What is most striking, however, is that the Iroquois name for ginseng, “Garent-oguen”, refers to the same characteristics of the root as does the word “ginseng” in Chinese. Both, according to Lafitau, refer to the similarity of the root’s shape to that of the human body. The large illustration in the book confirms that the root strongly resembles the legs and waist (and sometimes the torso and arms) of a person. These linguistic similarities, along with the similar conditions of region and climate, lead Lafitau to conclude that the two continents were once connected and that the plant, traveling in this way, has since become native to both regions (p.17).

      Ginseng, of course, was found in other parts of the world by this time. Lafitau discusses its appearance in Japan and claims that its only method of reaching there was through commerce. He is careful to note that ginseng brings a high price in many places (these missionaries were always thinking!) and speculates that further travel of ginseng might be good not only for the health of all, but for the pocketbooks of certain French entrepreneurs (p.63).


Note

      1. Father Lafitau remained with the Iroquois for five years. In addition to the book on ginseng, he also wrote a large two-volume work translated into English as Customs of the American Indians compared with the Customs of Primitive Times (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1974).

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at ragn0001@umn.edu.

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